No longer just reserved for pouring over pancakes; maple syrup has had a surge in popularity over the last few years, with many ‘clean-eating’ chefs and food bloggers swearing by this as a staple alternative to table sugar in cooking and baking. So, what is it about maple syrup that makes it a better option than table sugar, and is it actually healthy at all? We’re here to dispel the rumours and lift the lid on everything you need to know about maple syrup, so you can make the best-informed decision on whether to include this natural sugar into your diet or not.
So, is maple syrup a natural sugar?
If we are talking 100% pure maple syrup, then yes! Pure maple syrup is made from the sap of sugar maple trees and nothing else. This sap is collected, boiled until the water evaporates and the syrup become thick, then strained to remove any impurities. Maple syrup has been made this way and consumed for centuries in North America, with 80% of the world’s supply being produced in the Eastern Canadian province Quebec. (6).To ensure your syrup is the real deal, check the ingredients on the label – it should say ‘pure maple syrup’ or ‘maple syrup’ and nothing else. If there are any other ingredients, this means the product is not pure maple syrup and may have added sugars or preservatives. Some studies have shown that swapping refined sugars for natural sugar may help to improve the symptoms of digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (8).
Aside from being natural, what makes maple syrup healthy?
In addition to being free from artificial additives or sweeteners, pure maple syrup boasts many nutritional benefits and contains up to 24 different antioxidants. It is rich in vitamins and minerals such as manganese, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, copper, riboflavin, phosphorus and iron. It also contains vitamins B2, B5, B6, niacin, biotin and folic acid, as well as trace amounts of amino acids – the building blocks of protein (1, 10, 15, 18).
A 2011 study from the University of Rhode Island found that maple syrup contained 54 beneficial compounds, 5 of which have never been seen before in nature. These compounds are naturally produced during the boiling process of the sap when creating maple syrup. These identified chemical compounds including Quebecol (named after the world’s largest producer of maple syrup; Quebec), have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help to prevent diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s (10, 11).
Maple syrup is available in different grades, ranging from the lightest in colour, golden which has a delicate flavour, to amber which has a richer flavour, to dark amber with a robust flavour, through to the darkest in colour which has a much stronger flavour and is usually reserved for cooking and baking. Studies have shown that the darker the maple syrup, the higher its content of antioxidants and minerals (20).Maple syrup is also quite unique compared to sugar and many other sweeteners as it is considered to be a low glycemic index (G.I) food. The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly certain foods raise blood sugar levels). Food with a glycemic index of 55 or lower are described as ‘low G.I’ foods, pure maple syrup has a glycemic index of 54 so is therefore considered a low G.I food. In comparison, honey has a G.I of 58 and white table sugar has a G.I of 65 (13). While there is glucose is maple syrup, the content isn’t as high as refined white sugar and the fructose content of maple syrup breaks down in the liver, rather than in the stomach as with refined sugar. This is what gives maple syrup a lower G.I food, as when it is broken down in the body it doesn’t cause insulin levels to spike in the same way as refined sugars (16).
So, should I be having more maple syrup?
If you consume a lot of refined white sugar and are looking for an alternative source of sugar, then substituting refined sugar with maple syrup would be a better option for your health. However, due to the high sugar content of maple syrup, it is not recommended to increase consumption or add it to your diet on top of your current eating habits and sugar consumption.
Similarly, if you are looking to increase your vitamin and mineral intake by consuming maple syrup then you should look to find an alternative whole food source of these vitamins and minerals that will be lower in sugar and less damaging to the body. Let’s break down the amounts of vitamins and minerals present in maple syrup:
100ml of pure maple syrup contains:
- Manganese – 165% of the RDI (Reference Daily Intake)
- Zinc – 28% of the RDI
- Iron – 7% of the RDI
- Calcium 7% of the RDI
- Potassium – 7% of the RDI
While the above nutritionals mean that maple syrup is a superior choice of sugar over refined table sugar or honey, it’s worth noting that in order to gain those benefits, you would need to consume a significant amount. Let’s say to achieve the above, you consumed 100g of maple syrup – vitamins and minerals aside, you would be consuming 260 calories and a whopping 60g of sugar, which is double the amount recommended by current NHS guidelines, which recommend no more than 30g a day (14).
When compared to other sources of sugar, the vitamin and mineral content of maple syrup is undoubtedly impressive; however, there are far healthier low-sugar sources of these vitamins and minerals. For example, 45g of plain rolled oats would provide you with 166% RDI of manganese (roughly the same as 100g maple syrup) and contains no sugar. So, if you fancy a maple syrup fix, drizzle a little over your oats and rest assured your hitting your manganese goal – without excessive amounts of sugar (12).
So, is maple syrup actually unhealthy?
Compared to refined sugars, no – due to the fact it is lower G.I and contains the vitamins and minerals discussed above. This being said, as with any sugar, maple syrup should be consumed in moderation and sugar consumption kept to within recommended guidelines.
Whilst there are some health benefits to be gained from eating maple syrup, the high sugar content outweighs any positives. Essentially, sugar is sugar and no matter whether it be Glucose, sucrose, maltose, corn syrup, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, fructose, and molasses – they all mean the same thing: sugar.Consuming excess sugar from any source is one of the leading causes of some of the most widespread health issues and diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease (5, 7, 17, 19, 21). If you are seeking to reverse diabetes of any other blood sugar-related issues, it’s recommended to minimise overall sugar intake, regardless of whether it is natural (17).
A diet high in sugar increases your risk of weight gain, which can lead to visceral fat accumulation. Visceral fat is a type of body fat which is stored internally, deep in the abdominal cavity, located near several vital organs including the stomach, liver and intestines. This type of body fat can also build up in arteries and has been shown to be more dangerous than the external body fat we can see and grab hold of because it can actively increase the risk of serious health problems. Not overweight? You’re not off the hook unfortunately; even slim people who appear outwardly healthy can also have excessive amounts of visceral fat stored internally (9, 13, 22).A healthy body should have less than 1.0L visceral fat for men or 0.85L for women, however studies have found than the average UK male has 5.4L and 3.08L for women. The same study even found underweight individuals with very low BMI had up to 7L of visceral fat. This phenotype of slim people with excess internal fat are commonly referred to as TOFI’s (Thin Outside Fat Inside). In fact, BMI has little to do with visceral fat; sumo wrestlers with very high BMI were shown to have very low levels of visceral fat. Studies have shown that visceral fat can be a result of a diet high in sugar, processed food and lack of exercise. Reducing sugar consumption, increasing exercise and eating more nutritious, whole foods have been shown to reduce visceral fat. It is therefore recommended to monitor sugar consumption and try to stick within the recommended daily amount (30g) to avoid the associated health issues with a high-sugar diet (4, 9, 13, 22).
It’s not just your internal health that can suffer as a result of consuming too much sugar; a diet high in sugar can also wreak havoc with your skin. Conditions such as acne have been shown to be exacerbated by sugar and several studies have shown that sugar increases oiliness of the skin, clog pores and cause blemishes. It doesn’t stop there; sugar has also been shown to speed up the ageing of skin and increase wrinkles and fine lines (2).
Are there any low-sugar maple syrup alternatives?
Absolutely, our TPW Zero syrups are unrivalled no-sugar syrups in a variety of delicious flavours that you can use in just about anything! Drizzle on your porridge or pour over your protein pancakes – we’ve nailed the distinctive maple flavour that we all know and love, so you get maximum maple flavour without the excessive calories and sugar content! A delicious syrup both your taste buds and your waistline will thank you for!
The Take Home:
As discussed, pure maple syrup does contain vitamins and minerals and is lower GI than white table sugar. However, you would need to consume a significant amount to reap any benefits and the high sugar content (60g of sugar per 100g) means that the negative effects of the sugar would far outweigh any potential health benefits.
This being said; in small amounts, maple syrup can be a good alternative to table sugar – however it is recommended to stay within the recommended daily guidelines (30g). If you are looking for a healthy low-sugar syrup, try our TPW Zero Syrups. Not only packing incredible flavour, they are also zero sugar and zero calorie, meaning you can satisfy your sweet cravings without compromising your nutrition – no matter what diet or eating plan you follow. Available in delicious flavours such as honey and maple syrup, there’s something for every mood. Simply use as you would with maple syrup, use in baking and cooking, to drizzle over your breakfast, even in delicious marinades for meat or fish! TPW Zero Syrups are super versatile and at £5.99 for a generously sized 600ml bottle, are exceptional value for money and significantly cheaper than pure maple syrup! Give them a try and rest assured that you can enjoy a delicious syrup without any feelings of guilt or health/weight concerns – your only regret will be not trying them earlier!The main take away from assessing the pro’s and con’s of maple syrup is that, like many things in life, maple syrup is best enjoyed in moderation. So, go ahead and drizzle it over your favourite breakfast, or add to your baking – just try to keep your sugar intake within the recommended guidelines and enjoy without feelings of guilt… and knowing you’re getting a little antioxidant boost! However, if weight loss is your goal, it is recommended to explore other no/low-sugar alternatives to reduce your calorie and sugar intake.
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